It’s early on a late April Sunday morning, and I’m gently awoken by the achingly familiar song of robins in the distant trees. No longer silenced by winter’s command to shelter in silence, their orchestrations slowly build; a song that could have begun hours ago hundreds of miles away in an eastern mountain forest, carried across vast plains and bluffs until arriving in time with the first glimmer of daybreak on the land, and penetrating the window I’ve left cracked open.
I peek out from under the covers at the predawn shadows on the wall. As I blink, the blurred face of an old love flickers like a faded film strip projected behind my eyelids, and I swim back down into the warmth of my bedding to catch another glimpse of him, longing to inhabit this scene a little longer. We are lazily getting dressed, talking in hushed voices about the friends who are coming to visit, and he is telling me stories about the small Illinois town where they met. I reach for the soft peacock blue corduroy jeans I bought before freshman year, pulling them over my feet, only to recoil from the sharp metal staples at the ankles, maybe a misguided attempt to shorten the hem. The jarring sensation sends me upward, and my silken dream state begins to dissipate. I linger there, inhaling the dream’s vapor like the smoke from a candle that’s just been extinguished. The weight of my consciousness begins to pull on my insides, and my eyes turn to the window, framing a lavender sky barely ripening to pink. Silhouettes of trees begin to take shape, and the occasional car passes on a nearby road. I feel as though I’m coming around the same bend of track that I associate with Aprils past.
The last time I rose before dawn, I raced out the door, throwing a coat over my pajamas, and headed East to the park for the best view of what promised to be a colorful sunrise. The pond had just begun to freeze. I couldn’t contain my urge to press on the surface with my toe to hear the crackle and creak of ice giving way. Losing my balance, I cursed as my foot quickly got soaked with mucky ice water. That was December, and a desperate quiet escape from a busy week of work and travel and family gatherings. It feels like another lifetime, many bends and turns behind.
Now the ice has melted, and no coat is needed. But I leave the house only for fresh air and essential food runs. For the last 6 weeks, a pandemic has threatened the health and safety of an entire nation. Countless warnings and breaking news alerts have required us to vacate offices and schools and remain home until it’s safe to gather again. We are all vulnerable, and we threaten those around us as carriers, even if we don’t exhibit symptoms. It’s like a plot from a horror film, but it’s real life. And yet, isolated in my home with my closest family member, without any emotional connection to this disease, it’s hard to believe that it’s real. Being a shut-in is challenging for anyone, but for those of us who have a history of mental health issues, it’s utterly terrifying. The waves of loneliness, and the highs and lows of having almost no answers to my questions and no structure in my day, are taking a toll.
Dreams are especially vivid now. Sleep is a welcome side effect to being confined at home, but when I exceed 8 hours a day, my dreams start to feel more intertwined with my waking life. Lately I’m being visited in dreams by old friends, and also by people I no longer share a connection with. I’m experiencing the pain of loving them and losing them all over again. My senses are heightened. I see colors and feel warmth at recognizing their smiles. I can smell their scents and hear their voices just as though they are next to me. Waking up alone after these imaginary encounters is unsettling.
I watched a new film yesterday to pass the time. The director is one I know well, and after seeing his movies for half my life, I feel fluent in the language he speaks through his art. Maybe it reminded me of being a young, outgoing art student, seeing old ensemble cast members and letting the familiar dialogues wash over me. Like seeing an old friend and letting my guard down while he told a story, comforted to be sent back to an internal state of mind where I once existed so carelessly without worries about the future. His movies provoke a sentimentality for outdated sexist tropes, reckless emotional outbursts, violent confrontations. In a present that requires me to be inhibited in thoughts and actions, this movie provided a welcome escape into a part-fiction time and place where a pandemic doesn’t exist, and melodrama solves conflict.
I dreamed about a childhood friend earlier this week. A couple of days later he reached out, and I felt deep down that this was the right time to connect, that the dream was a fateful suggestion. But I have to question everything now. In the past I have distanced myself because of the emotional toxicity of our friendship. In my reckless pursuit of human touch, I considered meeting up with him, and I fantasized about the possibility of hugging him. When I thought of how this could actually threaten his fragile physical health, I felt so much remorse. But that urge to connect was so strong, like the draw of that thin layer of ice on the pond, begging to be tested, just for the pleasure of hearing the tiny shattering sound.
I fear myself at this point. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to put a public face on after the distancing restrictions are lifted. I take comfort in the practice of using a mask, sunglasses and a hat now. And I suppress my need to be seen and touched, only allowing it in dreams.